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On the Scent of Elephant Poachers

A story told from the perspective of Ranger Dog Zack

I’m trying really hard to block out the smell of leopard. Or is it hyena? I need to work on distinguishing my predators; it’s still pretty new, and they all smell a bit funky. I run my nose past some rhino dung, and take a sharp left at the thorny acacia bush. Good job I’ve got my Ruffwear boots on; nothing kills your game like a two-inch thorn in your paw. I’m on the scent of a poacher.

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It’s hot; the midday African sun is beating down on my back. We are in the middle of the savannah, flanked by a massive mountain range on one side. Rain has been scarce here – the grass is dry and there is no water for miles. We come across a small village, and my handler Joseph stops to have a chat with its inhabitants. They seem to know him, and I get the feeling they are asking him about me. I sit quietly in the shade of a tree, looking at their cattle that are in an area fenced by dry thorn bushes. I note that none of the cattle have boots like mine.

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I get back on the scent and we carry on heading north, Joseph walking fast to keep up with me as I zig-zag through the scrub. There is a rumble of elephants in the distance. I’ve learned to ignore it now. It sounds a bit like the noise Joseph’s stomach makes just before dinnertime. Yup – we’ve spent a lot of time together.

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A breeze freshens the scent and I change direction quickly yet again. We cross a sandy riverbed, where I can see fresh boot prints. I’m getting excited now, it’s almost time for the – was that a squirrel!? Concentrate Zack. He was just here, the poacher, he’s close.

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There’s a rustle in the bushes up ahead, a human outline. I launch myself towards him, and feel like I hit a brick wall. I always forget I’m on this darn harness. Joseph is shouting at the poacher. He breaks cover and makes a run for it. I yap and bounce and pull as hard as I can – just let me at him! Joseph shouts some more, but I hear him over my own excited yelps. There’s a sudden release – I’m free. Adrenaline is pumping through my body and I run as fast as I can. Not that I need to – this guy sure is a slow runner. I throw myself at his arm and get a good grip on it. He tries to pull free but my weight has unbalanced him and he falls to the ground, his arm still in my mouth. I shake it for good measure. Joseph catches up with us and gives me the release command. I reluctantly let go and catch my breath. Joseph showers me with praise and gives me my treats – yummy, chewy, meaty treats that taste even better after a mouthful of arm. Best. Day. Ever.

The poacher gets up and gives Joseph a high five. He takes off the protective layer of foam around his arm. “Next time it might be for real Zack” he says to me. “Good job boy.”

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Zack is a young Belgian Malinois who lives in Kenya. He is trained as an anti-poaching Ranger Dog, and works with the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). His job is to protect elephants, rhinos and the communities that live alongside them. Zack is still young, with a lot to learn, but his adventurous spirit and love of his job makes him a favourite with the rangers. To find out more, visit www.nrt-kenya.org.

Zack is one of several Ranger Dogs that The Nature Conservancy is supporting in Africa as part of our work to save elephants, from increasing security on the ground to combating the global trade in illegal ivory.

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